FRONT PAGES: A Study Examines The Global Distribution, Trends, And Drivers Of Flash Droughts

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NORMAN, OKLA . – Flash Droughts can be described as sudden, unpredictable periods of drought. These flash droughts can have severe consequences for agricultural and ecological systems, and may cause ripple effects that reach even further.

“Given that flash droughts can develop in only a few weeks, they create impacts on agriculture that are difficult to prepare for and mitigate,” said Jordan Christian, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oklahoma and the lead author of a study published in the journal Nature Communications. Even though the environment is not favorable for rapid drought development, persistent, multi-weekly lack of rain coupled with hot weather can lead to flash drought and its associated effects. Flash droughts can have devastating effects on agricultural production. “These impacts can have cascading effects, including increased risk for wildfires, depletion of water resources, reduction of air quality and decreased food security.”

Basara, who is also the executive associate director of the hydrology and water security program at OU, is the principal investigator and Christian’s faculty adviser. The OU-led study examines the global distribution, trends, and drivers of flash dry events.

“Going back into the early 2000s, there was a realization that these flash droughts happen,” Basara said. Some droughts develop much faster than others, just as not all droughts are alike.

“This is a crucial study because, although we can mitigate some of the effects of drought here in the U.S., there are still some events that occur in areas where it can’t be avoided.” He added. “When that happens in areas dependent on subsistence living, where agricultural production is needed to survive, these types of events can be really devastating for the local system and create a lot of socioeconomic turmoil.”

The study identifies global “hotspots” for flash drought from 1980 through 2015. Of the 15 locations analyzed, eight were identified as having experienced both the most flash drought occurrences for their regions, and as being locations with at least 20% of their total land areas used for agricultural production. Basara stated that flash droughts have certain preferential areas. This particular work was unique in that we were able identify these zones. A lack of rain is often associated with drought. Flash droughts are caused by a lack or rainfall. About half of these factors is rain, half is heat, and half is the “hostile layer mass”. The research team describes these regions to include the “Corn Belt” in the Midwest United States, the western Russian wheat belt, the western wheat belt in Russia, and wheat production in Asia Minor. They also include the Indochinese Peninsula and rice-producing regions in India.

Although six of the 15 regions experienced statistically significant increases in flash drought occurrences over the 36-year period examined in the study, three of the regions experienced a significant decline in flash drought frequency. It is not clear why certain regions saw more flash drought occurrences than others.

” While flash drought has been increasing or decreasing in many regions around the globe over the past four decades, it’s important to understand which areas may be more vulnerable to future flash drought risks,” Christian stated. This is particularly true for areas that have agricultural production as changes in the frequency and timing of flash droughts will pose additional problems during the growing season. This study provides a foundation to build off and explore key questions regarding future trends of flash drought occurrence.”

Christian added, “When flash drought events were examined, one thing was clear – timing is everything in terms of impacts from these events.”

In 2019, Christian and Basara developed a method to begin to identify flash droughts. This method has allowed researchers to gain a better understanding of these events.

“When I entered the Ph.D. program in 2017, Dr. Jeff Basara and I had a conversation about a research topic for my dissertation and he said, ‘I have an idea regarding flash droughts,’” explained Christian. It led to the creation of a method for identifying flash droughts, as well as the investigation of multiple flash drought events. This ultimately led to the global analysis on flash drought. It turned out to be a pretty good idea.”

Christian led a study published in Environmental Research Letters in 2020 that looked at the impact of a major heatwave in Russia in 2010. A flash drought preceded the heatwave. These weather events had such a devastating effect on Russia’s wheat crop that Russia stopped exporting.

“Russia was the largest importer of wheat from the Middle East. As a result, the Middle East saw a spike in grain prices.” Basara stated. The unusually high grain prices and socioeconomic turmoil that they caused were partly responsible for the Arab Spring’s social unrest. That ripple effect was caused by a flash drought in one part of the work that affected an entirely other portion of the world.”

With this study, the researchers are expanding their understanding of where flash droughts are more likely to occur around the world.

” This study helps us understand the whereabouts of flash droughts, but we still need to know more about why they occur,” he stated. “We find that the mechanisms work differently depending on where you live in the world.

“As the climate changes, and as there is population growth, and food security concerns, this topic becomes important due to its severe impact on agriculture, water resources, and other areas. It can cause wildfires, and other devastating effects. If we can better understand these flash droughts, we might have a better understanding of their predictability and then we can better plan for these types of events.”

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About the Study

The paper, “Global distribution, trends, and drivers of flash drought occurrence,” is published in the journal Nature Communications, DOI #10.1038/s41467-021-26692-z. Jordan L. Christian leads the research. Jeffrey B. Basara serves as the principal investigator. Jason Furtado from School of Meteorology and Xiangming Xiao from the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology at the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences and Center for Spatial Analysis are part of the OU team. The work was funded by the NASA Water Resources Program grant 80NSSC19K1266, the National Science Foundation grants OIA-1920946 and OIA-1946093, and the USDA Southern Great Plains Climate Hub.

About the University of Oklahoma

Founded in 1890, the University of Oklahoma is a public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma serves the needs of the nation, state and region in terms educational, cultural and economic. For more information visit www.ou.edu.

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